A great headphone amplifier is one that makes headphones sound better than you thought they were. Judged by that standard, the Centrance DACport will be an awesome upgrade for buyers who have already invested in high-quality headphones.
This component, which was made in the U.S., is downright elegant in its simplicity. There's no power adapter or batteries; the Centrance DACport ($400) runs off your laptop or home computer's USB port, and it doesn't care if it's running Mac, PC, Linux, or iOS. The DACport has a 1/4-inch (6.3 mm) headphone jack at one end, and a USB port at the other. There's also a tiny volume knob. The cigar-shaped aluminum chassis is 4.5 by 1 by 1 inches, and it weighs a mere 2.5 ounces.
That's all good, but I can't say I've ever heard a USB-powered audio device that sounded even halfway decent, until now. Compatible sample rates are 44.1, 48, 88.2, and 96-kHz, with 16- or 24-bit resolution.
Centrance is no startup; its technology is currently licensed by a number of brands, including Benchmark Media, Empirical, Bel Canto Design, Lavry Engineering and many other quality-oriented manufacturers.
System setup is supereasy: plug the DACport into your computer, and the little amp takes over as the main sound card and is ready to go. There's nothing to install, just plug and play! The DACport's Class-A amplifier has enough power to drive nearly any headphone to high volume levels. The DACport has more than 200 internal parts, and its metal chassis runs warm to the touch.
I used a number of headphones for this review including the full-size Grado RS-1, Sennheiser HD-650, Audio Technica ATH-M50s, and my Jerry Harvey JH-13 custom-molded in-ear headphones. The weight and dimensionality of the sound of the big bass drum on Jakob Dylan's "Nothing but the Whole Wide World," from his "Women and Country" CD, nearly knocked me over. Bass power, definition, and control are excellent, but it was the DACport's overall clarity and low distortion that stood out over many hours of use. I heard absolutely no noise or hiss from this USB DAC; it's really quiet!
Brian Eno's "On Land" ambient album was full of (near) subliminal textures and the stereo soundstaging was broad and spacious. Small- and large-scale dynamic contrasts were nicely delineated.
Listening to a bunch of high-quality bootlegged Neil Young concerts from Japan the immediacy and liveliness of the sound was remarkable. The sound seems sharper, more distinct, like looking through a window after it was cleaned. Perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay the DACport is, it's easy to listen to for hours on end. The lack of ear fatigue is rare. My only nitpick with the DACport occurred when I turned the volume way down; the sound shifted over to the left channel. Turning it up just a hair centered the left/right balance. Otherwise the sound is absolutely up to audiophile standards; it's a remarkable design.
Centrance also offers a very similar product, the DACport LX ($300), which is just the USB digital-to-analog converter part of the DACport, without the headphone amp. It can be used as a DAC in a desktop system to feed a power amp or powered speakers.